Britain is in the midst of a heated debate on the role of religion in public life, with parties split into those who believe faith plays too big a role and those who feel the country is being taken over by a militant secularism. The arguments have deepened in recent weeks after two court cases — one against the owners of a hotel who refused to allow a gay couple to take a double room and the other in which the town council in Bideford was banned from holding prayers before meetings — garnered international attention.
The case for religion has been taken up by Baroness Warsi, a Muslim member of the House of Lords and chairman of the ruling Conservative Party. Warsi, who led a ministerial delegation to Rome to meet the Pope, wrote in an article for The Daily Telegraph newspaper, “You cannot and should not extract these Christian foundations from the evolution of our nations any more than you can or should erase the spires from our landscapes,” and went on to compare what she calls “militant secularism” to totalitarian regimes. Warsi emphasizes that she is not calling for a theocracy, but for an environment where religious and secular agencies can work together.
The debate has even prompted Queen Elizabeth, who is head of the Church of England, to make a statement. The queen made a speech Feb. 15 in which she said that the church “has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths” in the United Kingdom and not to “defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions.” Lord Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, said he was concerned that there is a “gradual marginalization of the Christian faith, [with it] being pushed to the outskirts.”
Secularists claim that they are not trying to destroy religion in Britain, but to level the playing field. The National Secular Society, which backed the court case against the Bideford Town Council, said in a tweet, “Secularism seeks to ensure & protect freedom of religious belief & practice for *all* citizens. Challenging privilege is not anti-religious.” The NSS’s director, Keith Porteous Wood, added, “This judgment is an important victory for everyone who wants a secular society, one that neither advantages nor disadvantages people because of their religion or lack of it.”
Can religion and secularism coexist, or will there always be friction?
Religion and secularism have different objectives, and, in my view, they do and will continue to coexist with tension between them. Simply put, religion’s objective is to promote God, while secularism’s objective is to minimize or eliminate God from society. Oddly enough, this tension, if balanced, can keep both religion and secularism in check within society.
This balancing battle is not limited to Britain, as a similar battle exists in the United States. In the United States, we have the dual religious clauses of the 1st Amendment, which are not found in Britain. The Establishment clause protects against religion’s intrusion into government, while the Freedom of Religion clause protects against government’s intrusion into religion. Each clause requires the balancing of rights and, for better or worse, the courts generally act as the arbiter. Of note, these clauses and their balancing requirements exemplify the wisdom of their drafters.
Whether in Britain or in the United States, religious leaders are concerned that this balancing of rights is being tilted in favor of secularism. Baroness Warsi warns about the impact of militant secularism. Her concerns are valid, although her use of the term “militant” may be somewhat of an overstatement.
What is the cause for this tilt? In part, society is becoming more secular, as fewer people identify themselves with religion. Of more concern is the rise of moral relativism.
Speaking on the latter, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the LDS Church, in his address to the Chapman University Law School earlier this year, observed, “[m]ore and more of our citizens support the idea that all authority and all rules of behavior are man-made and can be accepted or rejected as one chooses.” That is, there are no absolute God-given truths. He further stated, “Moral relativism leads to a loss of respect for religion and even to anger against religion and the guilt that is seen to flow from it. As it diminishes religion, it encourages the proliferation of rights that claim ascendancy over the free exercise of religion.”
The challenge for religious leaders here and in Britain is to preserve religious freedoms and bring religious rights back into balance.
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Religion and secularism will always coexist until Jesus Christ returns to rule. Granted, some religions have virtually no friction with the world and thus their coexistence is peaceful. On the other end of the scale, others have an abrasive “convert or die” mentality. That’s just the way it’s going to be in a world of differing philosophies. I am confident that there will always be friction, to some degree, between secularists and the church.
Jesus said: “I am the light of the world; he who follows me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12). Referring to Christ, John wrote, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:5). John continues, “This is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). Unbelieving men will always chafe against Christ and his people.
Militant secularists don’t want to “level the playing field.” They want to level the church. They want believers to be treated like spiritual lepers, placed in quarantine so as not to infect others. They wave the banner of religious freedom for all citizens in one hand while the other works to destroy the freedoms of the select groups in their crosshairs. Jesus called his church to seek peace with all men as far as it depends upon us. But when the church is marginalized by the political maneuvers of a hostile minority, that isn’t coexistence. That’s oppression.
Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church
It is interesting to me that the battle over the separation of church and state is just as alive and well in Great Britain as it is here. I think religion and secularism can co-exist, but I also think there will be tension between the two. Actually, that tension has existed since the beginning of this country. When John Adams, our second president, was running for a second term, he was thought of as the more religious candidate, but that “libertine” Thomas Jefferson beat him.
Sometimes painting a candidate as religious has worked and sometimes it hasn’t. And personally, I think that’s a good sign. The voting public apparently is smart enough to vote for the more capable candidate, regardless of the religion that he/she espouses. To me, that’s a sign of health in our democracy.
But that tension will always be there, and I believe the pendulum will swing back and forth between the more conservative candidate and the more progressive, between the more religious candidate and the one who seems to be religious for political purposes. What I really look forward to is a time when we choose our leaders without any hint of a religious litmus test. People yearn for a colorless society. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., I yearn for a time when voters will choose their leaders based on their character and not on the color of their religion.
The Rev. Skip Lindeman
La Cañada Congregational Church
While there may always exist a hint of friction between the two views, I definitely think that religion and secularism can coexist in a free society. In order to achieve a more harmonious balance, however, we will need people at the negotiating table who are serious about respecting those with different opinions. Unfortunately, this ideal situation is far from a reality — and judging from the current political atmosphere in most Western countries, does not seem likely to materialize any time soon. The sad fact is that both sides of this debate are entrenched in their ways of thinking and don’t seem ready to reach across the aisle and compromise.
For example, Keith Porteous Wood of Britain’s National Secular Society claims to want to “level the playing field” for all of England’s citizens by banning prayers from town council meetings. What he is really doing is imposing the will of a small minority onto the majority, who appreciates religious values and approve of non-denominational prayers in the halls of government. Equally disturbing is the trend of religious extremists attempting to force adherence to their particular beliefs onto the general population without any sensitivity for those who don’t practice as they do.
There are so many challenges to the stability of our democratic societies. We face bitter political partisanship at all levels of government, continuing financial uncertainty on multiple fronts, plus the ever-present menace of terrorism — including a potentially devastating nuclear threat from Iran, the grand master of terrorist entities. Taking all these factors into account, I think that we all need to pause, take a deep breath, and tone down the vitriol when discussing matters of religion and its proper role. It is high time that we look beyond our differences and minimize this kind of infighting. I feel strongly that we should focus on our common goals and shared values as we address the pressing issues that present such danger and instability to our world.
Rabbi Simcha Backman
Chabad Jewish Center
I see nothing here contrary to the image of England as “this green and pleasant land.” I have traveled extensively throughout the United Kingdom, most recently in October 2011 to England’s beautiful Lake District, plus London for as long as we could afford it. My hotel and B & B hosts have been unfailingly accommodating, a concept the Cornwall hotelier should get in touch with. He certainly lacks imagination regarding what can be done without a double bed.
Baroness Warsi is a British-born Pakistani Muslim who says that different faiths “can unite in fighting bigotry and work together to create a more just world.” The Guardian (a leftist, presumably pro-secular, newspaper) says everyone needs to lower their voices, including atheist Richard Dawkins, whom they say is full of himself.
This is a very gentle friction.
Religious identity is not being denied, but rather official expression of religion. Clive Bone, who sued to stop prayers at local council meetings, said “expressing religion is a fundamental human right, but so is procreation and people do not take that into the council chambers.”
The High Court said that council prayers are not authorized under the Local Government Act of 1972, though they could continue “as long as council were not formally summoned to attend” — again, not the language of conflict. Warsi’s Conservatives are in power and could try to change the law, but while about 70% of Brits say they are religious, around that same percentage wants a secular society, so odds are against it.
In fact, religion in Britain seems pretty comfortable. There is no constitutional separation of church and state in the U.K. State schools, per a Department of Education edict, “must provide a daily act of collective worship which reflects the traditions of this country,” a brief masterpiece of inclusive language that is honored or ignored to varying degrees, without complaint.
In Blackburn, St. Matthews Church of England Primary, a “maintained,” meaning government-funded, school is 96% Muslim, and a teacher reports that everyone is happy with gatherings where those staff who are religious talk to children about faith. Sounds like coexistence to me.
Far be it for me to try to comment about rising secularism in a country where I do not live and whose governmental structures and protocols are different from those in the United States. However, I can comment on the fear expressed by many people about the growing disenchantment with organized religion in our country and its possible effects.
For those of us who are representatives of the clergy, it may be hard to imagine not being connected to a religious tradition or congregation. And religion does provide a strong support system for life and for living in a spiritual community. But many people seem to live very fulfilling and morally grounded lives without such affiliations. The concern by these non-religionists, in many cases, is about the narrow views held by some orthodox believers who are convinced that theirs is the only true religion and that others are misguided, at best, and damned, at worst.
Certainly people should be encouraged to find their own religious paths and to express their opinions freely. The problem arises when the assumption is that any one religion is the only acceptable one and that others should not be recognized or honored. We do not have a state religion, as they do in the U.K., but many still seem to believe that our country is a Christian nation. In fact, many of the founders of this country were not particularly religious or, like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams, espoused Unitarian principles and believed that our country should not favor any single religion.
Today, I am convinced that we must move beyond simple tolerance of those of differing faiths to active support of a variety of religious paths. Perhaps if we did that, those people who have abandoned religion would return because they felt welcome in congregations that encouraged diversity, rather than narrowness and opposition to all those outside their walls. If we cannot do that, we are likely to continue losing people to secularism where they can live lives of integrity, without fear of judgment and condemnation. My hope is that we will find a way to do just that.
The Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleton
Unitarian Universalist Church
of the Verdugo Hills
As one who believes the singular message of the Bible, especially as it is most fully fruited in the New Testament, I hold to what it says regarding mankind; that we are lost without God, and that God has worked a means to save us through one, and only one, conduit, Jesus Christ. Right now, indignant non-Christians are furrowing their brows and internally fuming after having just read that, because they think me narrow and bigoted for expressing belief that something is true, rather than merely an equal option among the religious consumer choices. But this is core belief of evangelical Christianity, and among all who believe Jesus is necessary to restore relationship with God and bring humanity hope.
Having started thus, you know I will not sit quietly while every sign of the aforementioned truth is debased, denied or defamed. I can hardly believe that in this country, which grants its citizens their rights because of God, there is desire to remove every reminder of him, lest atheists be disturbed or other religions feel momentarily excluded. If God goes, do not also the rights granted by him follow? Down come the crosses, out with invocations, rename our national holidays, bleach Christianity’s fiber from within our national fabric, and what will remain?
If I had my druthers, this country would be an unabashed Christian nation. I don’t mean a theocracy with compelled faith, but where the God of our anthems and pledges is not shamed away for our minority constituents. Since that opportunity is two centuries past, I imagine folks like me must go kicking and screaming into the new age. But rather than embracing an age of beige, where religion is hidden except in angry law courts, how about we agree to mutually keep our symbols, holy days by name, and let each other be? We won’t believe in your religion, but we’ll not go out of our way to disturb it. If we want to invocate our councils on Walton’s Mountain where everyone is christianly agreed, let it be. If we want to maintain Christian morality at our bed-and-breakfasts, board someplace else if you can’t countenance our morals. We’ll do the same.
The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church